Vote for Paid Sick Days as a Basic Right

Some years ago, my ten-year-old Becky and I were eating breakfast when she suddenly started complaining of a headache. I took her temperature and it had soared to over 101. I was the executive director of a legal aid office and had scheduled an important staff meeting at work. My wife wasn't home so I called the office and told my secretary I couldn't come in. I used a paid sick day, a benefit that accrued to all the staff, and stayed home to care for my little girl.

Paid leave is especially important for those who have difficulty making ends meet. It's a state by state and town by town fight with New Jersey as the latest battlefield.

Over 1 million New Jerseyans work at places where they cannot earn a single paid sick day, which means they have to choose between taking care of a child with the flu or risk losing a day's pay, or even their job. I live in Montclair and according to the U.S. Census Bureau there are 16,438 private-sector workers in Montclair Township. Of those, the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University estimates that 7,068 are without paid sick leave.

Those folks need protection some of us in New Jersey have an opportunity to do something this November 4, on Election Day. Voters in Montclair and Trenton can vote to adopt sick leave ordinances to protect their town's workers. Not only will voting yes help our towns, but winning paid sick days will also help spur a statewide movement.

The NJ Citizen Action, Working Families Alliance, CWA, Time to Care Coalition, New Jersey Main Street Alliance, BlueWave and other grassroots groups have launched a statewide campaign focusing on passing local laws in municipalities around the state that would give people working in those towns and cities the right to earn paid sick days. Jersey City, Newark, Paterson, Passaic, Irvington and East Orange have already adopted sick leave ordinances. These civic groups believe a bottom-up, town-by- town, city-by-city strategy will pressure legislators and the governor to pass a state law. While federal and state family and medical leave acts currently on the books give many workers the right to up to 12 weeks of sick leave per year, such laws do not require that employees be paid at least 3 or 4 of those days for such leave.

Evidence from Connecticut's statewide paid sick leave law as well as cities like San Francisco and Seattle show earned sick leave policies provide benefits for employees and the surrounding community facing the dilemma of what to do when a family member needs care. If an employee at a restaurant or a pharmacy will not be paid for seek leave, he or she may have no economic choice but to come to work sick, thereby infecting co-workers and customers. Do you want your waiter sneezing in your linguini?

Also, if an employee comes to work sick out of economic necessity, he or she may suffer a worsening of his condition and thereby incur medical costs that might otherwise have been avoided. Moreover, if a parent cannot stay home to tend to an ill child, the employee may have to send that child to school, infecting others.

In an era where political leaders are more interested in helping corporate CEOs than everyday workers, we can push them to help parents play their essential role in the health care of their family.

Many local business owners likeWatchung Booksellers proprietor Margot Sage-EL are supporting the Montclair initiative, citing the need for their staffs to take paid sick days when ill.

Exercising the kind of leadership New Jersey needs, Montclair resident and Freeholder Brendan Gill quickly endorsed the plan. "This is a great opportunity to help the people who work here in Montclair in the food service industry or the day care industry," said Gill, who called the local initiative "common sense legislation."

Whether you're an executive director of a law firm, or a healthcare worker, or an adjunct-minimum wage college teacher, or dishwasher, you should have a right to a few paid sick days to care of yourself, your kids or an elderly mom.

If you live in Montclair, vote yes on Montclair's paid sick days ballot question this November 4. If your state, town or city doesn't have a ballot question, push your local leaders to support statewide or local paid sick leave law.

John Atlas, the author of Seeds Of Change: The Story of Acorn, America's Most Controversial Anti-Poverty Community Group (Vanderbilt U. Press 2010), was one of the founders of NJ Citizen Action, and lives in Montclair.

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